“Hate marches”: How Politicians weaponise religious identity?

By David Robertson

On March 1st, Rishi Sunak gave his first Prime Ministerial address from the steps of 10 Downing Street. It was late on a Friday afternoon, and apparently organised rather hastily. What necessitated such an urgent, national response?

“A shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality”, Sunak said, which “demands a response not just from government, but from all of us”. As many commentators noted, it was not clear exactly what “extremist disruption and violence” he was referring to. The protest marches against Israel’s campaign in Gaza has been one of the largest and most peaceful in British history, with arrest rates way lower than the Glastonbury Festival or a Premier League football match. The only violence that has been seen was not from the protestors at all, but by counter-protestors, including individuals formerly associated with the far-right English Defence League, after being encouraged by the then-Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

Yet, according to Sunak,

Jewish children fearful to wear their school uniform lest it reveal their identity. Muslim women abused in the street for the actions of a terrorist group they have no connection with… You can be a practising Hindu and a proud Briton as I am. Or a devout Muslim and a patriotic citizen as so many are. Or a committed Jewish person and the heart of your local community… and all underpinned by the tolerance of our established, Christian church.

It seems clear that Sunak was not responding  to any real threat, but rather attempting to deflect from a wave of his ministers being accused of racism and Islamophobia, provide cover for the Commons’ Speaker Lindsay Hoyle breaking Parliamentary procedure to pass Labour’s ceasefire motion rather than the SNP’s more critical one, and to connect all this with the protests which have taken place weekly across the UK since October 2023 and which directly oppose the Government’s position of support for Israel’s military actions. These protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful, organised according to the law with the support of the Police, and do not represent an extremist minority, but rather the views of 66% of the population today, up from 59% in November 2023. Nor are the protestors predominantly Muslim, but represent a cross-section of the British public—including many Jewish people.

But from Sunak’s speech, and Michael Gove’s widely criticised redefinition of extremism which followed, you would get the impression of a state of emergency, almost a civil war in which the Christian majority are embattled with a wave of Muslim immigrants.

The reality could hardly be more different. As shown by the 2021 census, we know that the percentage of the English population identifying as Christian has been dropping at a steady rate of 1.3% of the population per year since at least 2001, and was 46.2% in 2021 (in Scotland it is even lower). The UK is no longer a Christian majority country, and if current trends continue, will be a majority “No Religion” by the next census. And for all Sunak and Gove’s scaremongering, there is no wave of Muslim immigrants threatening the UK. They amount for only 6.5% of the population, 3.9 million, an increase of only 800,000 (the number of people on the biggest London march) over the last decade.

Figure 1. UK Religion 2011 Census

 

(Religious composition, 2011 and 2021, England and Wales. Source: ONS. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/religion/bulletins/religionenglandandwales/census2021)

The decline of Christian identification was matched by a rise in “no religion”, not Islam. So to frame the protests as two religions clashing, as Sunak does, is at best ignorant, and at worst risks heightening tensions and even encouraging violence, as Braverman did when she called peace protests “hate marches” and accused the police of double standards (implying religious discrimination in favour of Muslims).

So what’s going on? The politics of Israel-Gaza are a factor, to be sure, but there are other influences at work here. While the antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party under Corbyn is well-known, there have been regular accusations of Islamophobia within the Conservative party since at least 2011, notably including by the Tory Peer Baroness Warsi who said it “right up to the top” of the Party. The Muslim Council of Britain accused the Tories of responding with “denial, dismissal and deceit” after Boris Johnson wrote in The Spectator that “To any non-Muslim reader of the Koran, Islamophobia—fear of Islam — seems a natural reaction, and, indeed, exactly what that text is intended to provoke.” In 2019, anti-Muslim incidents almost quadrupled after Johnson described a woman wearing a burqa as “looking like a bank robber” in a newspaper column. Deputy Party Chairman Lee Anderson was fired for stating that London Mayor Sadiq Khan was under the control of “Islamists”. It’s not just MPs—a 2020 report by Hope Not Hate found that 57% of Conservative Party members had a negative attitude towards Islam also.

Michael Gove has been accused of anti-Muslim rhetoric previously, however. In 2006, he published Celsius 7/7, which argues for a “widespread reluctance to acknowledge the real scale and nature of the Islamist terror threat” from “a sizeable minority” of British Muslims holding “rejectionist Islamist views” which he describes as comparable to the threat from Nazism. Citing the “clash of civilisations” thesis argued by Bernard Lewis, “the chief ideologue of post-9/11 politics of hate towards Islam and Muslims”, its many errors of fact are best addressed by William Dalrymple’s review. Gove was heavily criticised for his handling of the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair in Birmingham in 2014, in which fraudulent letters accusing Muslims of attempting to “infiltrate” schools were taken so seriously that Gove appointed the former head of the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism unit as Education Commissioner. It should not therefore be surprising that several Muslim groups are singled out as targeted by Gove’s new “extremism” definition.

Figure 2. Protests in Edinburgh. Photo: David Robertson

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Religion and Calendars: Sakha Moons and Summer Solstice

By Liudmila Nikanorova 

For centuries, even for millennia, human life and activities have been measured in time. While the majority of people are now used to the standardised units of time, such as seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, and years, the organisation of these units through calendars can be very diverse. There are over forty calendars in use today. Some of them are sun-based, like the Gregorian solar calendar used in the UK since 1750. There are also lunisolar calendars that follow the movements of the moon, like the Chinese, Jewish, and Islamic calendars.

Religion is closely intertwined with the organisation of calendars. Holidays in different countries can indicate which religion has the strongest presence in the nation-state. In most European countries, for example, Christmas and Easter are the largest public holidays indicating the strong presence of Christianity in Europe.

Another example is when the Soviet Union introduced new holidays to replace the Orthodox Christian ones following the Russian Revolution in 1917. This measure was supposed to mark the transition from the “dark religious” Russian Empire to the “modern secular” Soviet state, where religion was regarded as “the opium of the people.”

The names of the units of time can also inform about the main activities of the people. The calendar of the Sakha (Yakut) people from North-East Asia, for instance, reflects environmental and agricultural cycles central to the life of the Sakha. This is particularly evident in the Sakha names of months:

 

Kulun Tutar yia [March] – the month of foal catching.

Sakha people have been historically horse herders and have incorporated products made from mare’s milk into their diet. During this month, foals are captured and separated from the mares to facilitate the milking process. Kymys, a drink made from fermented mare’s milk, is not only a local delicacy but an important part of Sakha ceremonies and festivities.

Figure 1. Running foals of the Sakha breed (all photos are taken by the author)

 

Muus ustar yia [April] – the month of ice drift.

Sakha Sire [Sa. ‘the land of the Sakha’] is located in one of the coldest regions of the planet, where rivers and lakes freeze during the winter months. The thawing of the Lena River, one of the largest rivers in the world, is a time of excitement but also anxiety, as it often leads to floods in the region.

 

Yem yia [Mai] – the month of spawning.

Lake fishing, especially for sobo, a fish belonging to the same family as carp, has been one of the main subsistence practices among the Sakha. This month marks the spawning season for sobo fish.

Figure 2. Frozen sobo fish inside the ice installation

 

Bes yia [June] – the month of a pine tree.

This month not only indicates the arrival of summer, when trees turn green, but also the specific period for harvesting resin from the Siberian pine.

 

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Over twenty-five years of Yoga Studies: the birth of a sub-discipline of Religious Studies

By Suzanne Newcombe

Recently I was asked to reflect upon the growth of the field of ‘Yoga Studies’ – the academic study of yoga in the disciplines of yoga and social sciences to celebrate a decade of successful graduates from the MA in Yoga Studies at SOAS.  The evening celebratory event was enthusiastically well attended by at least one-third of the graduates of the programme.

This occasion made me feel both old and grateful that I could reflect upon the establishment of Yoga Studies as a sub-field through lived experience. I started researching contemporary or ‘modern yoga’ (although it wasn’t yet a term) in 2002 as part of an MSc in the Sociology of Religion. My question then was what are the beliefs of yoga practitioners and how do they relate to religion? (For more how I framed and answered the question at the time, see Hasselle-Newcombe 2005)

But as I was doing this research I realised there were more basic and obvious questions.

  • Why was doing something called ‘yoga’ both incredibly common and normal? Wasn’t yoga something from another culture? How and why did this happen?

I realised that these questions would keep me busy for a PhD, which I began in 2003 and was eventually published as a monograph Yoga in Britain: Stretching Spirituality and Educating Yogis (2019).

But of course, I wasn’t the only one interested in this question. Elizabeth de Michelis’ A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism (2004), marked a pivotal moment, defining ‘modern yoga’ as a practice with distinct characteristics from its premodern roots. During the same year, Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India: The Body between Science and Philosophy was also published. In the next two decades these books were followed but an exponentially increasing number of academic publications and insights.

I was lucky enough to be part of many of the initial discussions facilitated by Elizabeth de Michelis as the director of the Dharam Hinduja Institute of Indic Research at the University of Cambridge between 2000 to 2006. She brought together most of the scattered scholars in the social sciences and humanities who were looking at contemporary yoga for a series of conferences and workshops.

My PhD research was very much shaped by these dialogues, particularly through discussions with Elizabeth and Mark Singleton undertaking the PhD research which underpins Yoga Body (2010) at the time. The extant academic research on yoga was possible to keep in my head during my PhD. But now I must do a fresh literature search every time I want to write about the field because something new has always been published by someone I’ve not yet encountered.

The questions from which I started my PhD research were naïve, general and basic. Now the questions that preoccupy the growing number of yoga researchers are more nuanced and much more specific, for example:

  • How are the soteriological goals of yoga expressed in different times and places? What are the commonalities and differences in these goals and experiences?
  • How do the experiences of yoga practice relate to more contemporary psychological descriptors such as flow, absorption – or modern ideas of ‘concentration’ and meditation?
  • What other traditions of physical and spiritual practice have been incorporated into contemporary yoga contexts? When and how do these transformations of practices occur?
  • How have our current understandings of ‘meditation’ and ‘yoga’ been established? Do these words adequately describe either the experiences or motivations of practitioners?
  • How might we use the nuanced discussions found in historical texts to explore the nuances of practitioner experiences and diversity of practices found in contemporary yoga and meditation?
  • Where, how and in what ways does yoga recapitulate power imbalances and systemic oppressions? How does this happen in similar and distinct ways in different times and places?

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Westminster Education Policy Briefing: innovative pedagogies for teaching religious diversity

By John Maiden 

On 18 January 2024, the Open University and the project Religious Toleration and Peace (RETOPEA), was mentioned as an “exciting” teaching innovation during a Lords Grand Committee on Religious Education in schools. The project was described as presenting young people with an opportunity to “think outside the box about their own experiences of religious diversity, tolerance and intolerance”. The following week, the OU team was able to follow up on this with an education policy briefing event in Westminster. Here we presented some of the outcomes and potentialities of the project, and particularly our ‘Docutubes’ methodology. This is an approach through which young people have been encouraged to learn creatively about religious diversity in past, present and their own experiences, by writing, making and editing their own short films.

The Docutubes approach was first developed as part of a Horizon 2020 funded project in collaboration with various universities and partners across Europe. Since this has ended, further support from the Culham St Gabriel Trust and the OU’s Open Societal Challenges programme, has enabled the OU team to test the methodology in a number of new contexts, including the Muslim-majority countries of Albania and Jordan, in a wider range of English schools, and in both a Protestant and Catholic school in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

In the first half of the policy event, members of the project team, John Maiden, Stefanie Sinclair and John Wolffe, along with Karel Van Nieuwenhuyse, a RETOPEA colleague from KU Leuven, explained the Docutubes approach. We spoke about how engaging young people with an accessible online archive of primary sources – ‘thinking like historians’ – and then the creative learning approach of Docutubes, had demonstrated the potential to address common ‘presentist’ understandings of the religious diversity. Specifically, the approach is able to challenge the widely held views about the past which associate religion with conflict. We then heard from two educators, Richard Brown (Head Teacher, Urswick School, London) and Ruairi Geehan (Mercy College, Belfast) about their experiences of RETOPEA, as well as Dr Renee Hattar, Director of the Jordanian Royal Institute of Interfaith Studies, which hosted a Doctubes workshop in 2023. Finally, a young people who had experienced a Docutubes workshop described his own positive experiences of the project, working alongside young people from other religious traditions, in the context of an interfaith youth camp organised by the Rose Castle Foundation.

In the second half (pictured), we heard responses from expert practitioners in the fields of teaching, peace-making and interfaith: Helen Snelson (Teacher Education, University of York, Chair of the Historical Association’s Secondary Committee and a EuroClio Ambassador); Rosie Dawson (Freelance religion journalist, documentary maker and radio producer); David Porter (Strategy Consultant for the Archbishop of Canterbury); Riaz Ravat (Contributor to the Commission on Islam in the UK, Prime Minister’s Extremism Task Force and the Commission on Religion & Belief in Public Life). Here, there was enthusiasm for the approach, and particularly how it might provide spaces for young people to talk with each other about potentially difficult or controversial issues in constructive ways. There were also challenges. How can we help ‘time poor’ teachers, for example of History and RE, to incorporate Docutubes into their curriculum? Given that negative views about religious diversity often begin in the home, are there ways in which Docutubes could equip teachers and young people to challenge stereotypes and generalisations which might learned from parents and family?

The OU team (including Katelin Teller) plan to continue to develop and expand the use of the Docutubes methodology, and this event enabled us both to raise awareness and see new potentialities. We are grateful to all the participants for their contributions.

Watch this space! And in the meantime, for more information on the Docutubes approach, see this OU Badged Open Course.

Democracy, Information, and Religion

By Paul-François Tremlett

On the 17-18th January this year, academics, activists, journalists, religious, policy makers and artists assembled at Burlington House in London (see photograph) for a series of trans-disciplinary talks and activities to address the role of religious institutions and religious communities both in the generation and dissemination of disinformation but also in the cultivation of information literacy to resist information manipulation. The event was organised by Dr Paul-François Tremlett (Religious Studies) and Dr Precious Chatterje-Doody (POLIS) and was funded by the Open Societal Challenges initiative at the Open University (see Democracy, Information, and the cultural capital of Religion: Sharing Global Best Practice on Press and Election Manipulation (open.ac.uk)). Their respective expertise in the Philippines and Russia – countries where powerful religious institutions have promoted disinformational and anti-disinformational narratives – was the catalyst for the event, which sought to analyse shifting and multi-layered contexts including a neoliberal frame that pervades contemporary economic and political discourses where the financialization of everything means big profits for those creating and dissemating disinformation, huge dissatisfaction with ruling elites across the global South and global North accompanied by a rise in populist and divisive politics, and widespread disengagement from traditional forms of political participation as governments appear increasingly distant from and unresponsive to the populations they are supposed to serve.

In such fractious times disinformation, conspiracy theories and dissension can feel like the means to “stick it to the man”. Indeed, they offer forms of political and discursive participation albeit ones grounded in a constellation of affects from anger to vexatiousness (among others) that signal a breakdown of trust in once hallowed and taken-for-granted institutions, political and cultural traditions and social memories. Bringing religion – often a synecdoche for stability, morality, tradition and trust – into the conversation about democracy and disinformation, means that we can start to explore the involvement of religious institutions and communities in spreading and/or contesting disinformational narratives, but also work to refine our theoretical and methodological tools to study the entanglements of the information and disinformation-scapes of religion and democracy.

When it comes to information, of course, there is no passage to a neutral language or medium that can be detached from politics, history or passion or indeed from situated reception and interpretation. We know that what we’re talking about is power; networks of alliances and forces which the political strategist Antonio Gramsci, in the Prison Notebooks, characterised as “unstable equilibria”. Solving the problems around democracy, information, election manipulation and religion cannot be done by fact-checking or media, political and religious literacy training alone, as much as such initiatives help. Rather, the interventions we design must make the most of those “unstable equilibria” to find new centres of gravity around the commons and the public good. We’re hopeful that through our event and the interactions and collaborations it has set in motion, we will develop new initiatives to tackle what’s rapidly emerging as a key challenge of our time.

The value of ephemera in research

By Jackie Hosein 

When researching a particular topic, place, or time, ephemera – newspapers, magazines, leaflets, posters, and so on – can be a valuable source of information and context. My research is currently focused on the town of Glastonbury and its role in the New Age from the mid-1980s and, as might be expected from a place with an active alternative community, there is a rich history of ephemera from that time.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there were several Glastonbury-based publications reflecting local events and interests. Some only ran for a few issues or even just one, but still gave an insight into the debates and preoccupations of the time. One of the earliest of these was The Torc edited by Patrick Benham which ran for fifteen issues, from 1971 to 1975. The first issue featured articles on psychometry on Glastonbury Tor, and the yin and yang of food, as well as local events, news, recipes, poetry, and for sale adverts. A short-lived title The Glastonbury Thorn, produced two issues; 1979 and 1980, and represented a feminist viewpoint (see Figure 1). It was edited by Kathy Jones, who went on to establish the Goddess community and conference in Glastonbury.

Figure 1. The Glastonbury Thorn

At this point, there was a relatively small alternative community, and few New Age businesses of events, in Glastonbury. The mid-1980s saw a shift in the town. Local manufacturers had closed, and in the recession of the early 1980s chain stores disappeared from the High Street and existing local shops struggled to stay open. However, the town’s proximity to the Glastonbury Festival, and growing reputation as a New Age centre, attracted people involved in Green politics and the festival circuit. The government’s Enterprise Allowance Scheme was set up around this time to help small businesses, requiring only a start-up bank balance of £1000. This created opportunities for New Age businesses and initiatives catering for the increasing number of visitors coming to Glastonbury to experience its spiritual side. Local legend tells of the same £1000 being passed round to several potential entrepreneurs before being returned to its original owner.

The Glastonbury Communicator started as a newsletter about events at the Assembly Rooms, which had been restored and run by the local community as an arts and performance space. It expanded to include other news and events in Glastonbury, and ran for eighteen issues, 1984 to 1988. Local, national, and international news was featured, ranging from concerns about local limestone paving slabs to several articles highlighting the famine in Eritrea.

Unique Publications, which holds an archive of many of the publications mentioned in this article, is a small business started in 1985 by Bruce Garrard. Like several others, he had settled in Glastonbury after being evicted from the peace camp at Molesworth, and was subsidised initially by the previously mentioned Enterprise Allowance Scheme. Unique Publications published The Times of Avalonia (see Figure 2), described by Garrard as a satirical response to the excesses of the local press at a time when New Age travellers, camped at nearby Greenlands Farm in the aftermath of the Battle of the Beanfield, were the target of local outrage. It ran for eleven issues from 1985 to 1988. Its successor, The Glastonbury Gazette (see Figure 3), was an attempt to go more mainstream in its coverage, for example publishing a series of more balanced articles about the travellers. It ran for seven monthly issues in 1989. Renamed the Glastonbury Times, it ran for a further five issues from 1990 to 1991.

         

Figure 2. The Times of Avalonia            Figure 3. The Glastonbury Gazette

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Women covering their hair – why does it matter in Iran?

By Hugh Beattie

In the early autumn of 2022 widespread protests broke out in a number of Iranian cities. These followed the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, on September 16, in hospital in Teheran. Members of the Morality Police (Guardian Patrol) had arrested her because, they claimed, she had not covered her hair completely and so had broken the rules regarding women’s dress. They beat her severely and this was almost certainly responsible for her death. After killing some 500 protestors, the security forces succeeded in suppressing the unrest that followed. In July 2023 the Morality Police, who had suspended searches for and arrests of women not covering their hair properly in public spaces, resumed them.

Iran has been in the news again lately because of the government’s continued attempts to force women to follow the dress code. A few weeks ago the imprisoned Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, who is currently serving a 10-year jail term in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her fight against the oppression of women in Iran. On October 28 2023 the teenager Armita Geravand died in hospital after being in a coma for nearly four weeks, having suffered a traumatic brain injury following a fall on a tube train in Tehran. It has been alleged that she fell when members of the Morality Police tried to arrest her because she was not wearing a headscarf, although the government denies this. A well-known human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoude, attended Armita Geravand’s funeral early in November. At the funeral members of the Morality Police violently arrested Sotoudeh because they said that her hair was not covered properly. She was jailed for three weeks before being released on bail.

The Iranian government is obviously determined not to make any concessions as regards women’s rights. In fact it is currently trying to restrict them further. The President, Ebrahim Raisi, is a hardline conservative who appears to have been involved in the mass execution of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. During the summer the government introduced a new Chastity and Hijab bill which will introduce much severer penalties for women who do not follow the dress code. Parliament has passed the bill, but the Guardian Council, which vets new laws to make sure they conform to Islamic principles, has not yet approved it. Currently women who do not follow the code can be sentenced to up to two months in prison and payment of a small fine. If the new law does come into force, the maximum sentence will be raised to ten years in prison; offenders may be flogged, and pay much larger fines (around £550). The new law contains various other restrictive provisions. For instance shops and restaurants which do not ensure that female customers follow the dress code may be penalised, and there will be increased use of security cameras in public places to identify and track down women not doing so.

Why does women’s dress (and particularly completely covering their hair) matter so much? Why is the Islamic Republic spending political capital on an issue which doesn’t seem to be a very important one, in doing so upsetting many of its own people and attracting criticism from around the world?

The main reason seems to be that particular styles of women’s dress have become increasingly politicised since 1936 when the Iranian ruler, Reza Shah, decreed that women should no longer wear a veil. By banning the veil Reza Shah intended to show how modern and secular his government was. Another example of this politicisation is the way that during the relatively socially liberal 1970s, some women returned to wearing a chador (cloak) or some other form of ‘modest dress’ to express their rejection of the westernizing and authoritarian rule of his son, Muhammad Reza Shah. Following the Iranian Revolution in 1978/9, the government of the new Islamic Republic of Iran demanded that women wear modest dress and cover their hair with a headscarf. Since then challenging this dress code has been a way of expressing dissatisfaction with the government. As one woman commented, after taking part in a protest which was violently repressed by the police, ‘we realized the importance of hijab for the Islamic Republic. It was more than just putting a scarf on, we realized that hijab is the identity of [the] Islamic Republic, so to speak’. By refusing to follow the dress code, many women are not just expressing a wish to dress as they please, they are signalling their opposition to the government and its values. It seems that the regime fears that if it gives way on the hijab issue, there will be pressure for it to make other concessions, which could seriously undermine its authority.

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Hope for peace at the pro-Palestinian march on Armistice Day

By Maria Nita

Saturday, 11th November 2023, Armistice Day. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza in October 2023 weekly pro-Palestinian protest marches have been held in London, on a Saturday. On this occasion the march started at midday, an hour after the solemn annual ceremony at the Cenotaph – albeit this was eventually disrupted by a group of far-right counter-protestors attempting to reach the pro-Palestinian march and clashing with police.  

Children’s Shoes Memorial – Extinction Rebellion protest action, November 2023, London (Photo Copyright: Extinction Rebellion Families)

In Trafalgar Square Extinction Rebellion activists showed their support for the pro-Palestinian march by staging an evocative children’s shoes memorial, for both Israeli and Palestinian young victims. Shoe memorials that mark collective tragedies draw inspiration from those commemorating the genocide against Jewish people, with well-known displays in the Holocaust memorial museums of Auschwitz and Washington DC. Based on some of the public accusations against the pro-Palestinian marches being antisemitic – they were called ‘hate marches’ by ex-Home Secretary Suella Braverman – even an inadvertent connection with the Jewish genocide may strike people as inappropriate, but it is important to emphasise what many protestors have stressed in public statements, namely that the marches are pro-Palestinian, not anti-Jewish. 

Protestors are accusing the Israeli state of war crimes, and not the Jewish nation. Moreover, the ‘Jews for Ceasefire’ group have also been attending the pro-Palestinian marches, to oppose both the war crimes being committed by the Israeli state, as well as the criminal actions of Hamas – the terrorist group who, on the 7th of October 2023, attacked Jewish communities, killing civilians and taking hostages, including children.  

The pro-Palestinian march, which started in Hyde Park and ended in front of the US embassy, called for the UK and US governments to ask Israel for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. Many of the protestors’ placards pointed a finger to the seeming silent complicity of the UK and US governments for their failure to denounce and sanction the state of Israel, with such slogans as: ‘the UK and US shield Israel from accountability for its political crimes’, ‘their blood on your hands’, ‘bombing babies and killing children is not self-defence’, ‘genocide is not self-defence’, ‘stop war crimes in Gaza’, ‘it’s not complicated, it’s genocide’, ‘I can’t believe I have to protest against Genocide’, ‘one child is being killed every 10 minutes in Gaza’, ‘cease fire now allow aid in Gaza’, ‘stop the massacre’. 

Protest action, November 2023, Edinburgh (Photo: David Robertson)

Globally, since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, there has been a rise in both antisemitic and Islamophobic motivated crimes, especially in the US, UK and Europe. At the peaceful 11 November 2023 pro-Palestinian march, with an attendance of some 300,000 people, the police reported that only a very small number of participants were being investigated for antisemitic statements – yet is important to distinguish between some of the statements of support to Palestine that are understood by some groups (but not others) as antisemitic, and the comparatively small amount of overt antisemitism at the events. The controversial chant ‘Palestine will be free from the river to the sea’ was interpreted by some as a call for the destruction of the state of Israel – in other words where would the state of Israel be, if Palestine were to take up the territory from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea? Protesters defended the chant in media statements, explaining that it refers to freedom, self-determination and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis, and an end to what has been described in some media and scholarship as the Israeli apartheid of Palestinians in Israel and the Palestinian territories (Pappé, ed. 2021; Rifkin, 2017). Protest banners citing late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish sought to give voice to this collective experience of suffering of alienation, pointing beyond the current crisis: ‘“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears”’. 

Protest action, November 2023, Edinburgh (Photo: David Robertson)

Criticism and debate emerged from the fact that the pro-Palestinian march was going to be taking place on Armistice Day. The disagreement exposed the deeper ambiguity of Armistice Day: on one hand, recalling the atrocities of war and the need to build and maintain peace, whilst on the other hand, glorifying war through notions of martyrdom and the celebration of veterans – for an in-depth discussion of a century-long history around the complexities and controversies of the day, see Wolffe, 2019. Yet pro-Palestinian protestors on the Armistice Day march addressed the criticism of the march being disrespectful on their protest banners, by pointing to the appropriateness of asking for a ceasefire on such a day. Their slogans read: ‘Remembrance = action we take to prevent all wars’ and ‘Armistice for Palestine’. The controversy around holding the protest on Armistice Day brought up to the intersectionality of religious identity and issues of racial and ethnic equality and conflict, with protestors proclaiming on their banners: ‘“Never Forget” is not reserved for white people’ – thus addressing the far-right declared intention to keep the day as a national event. 

The media and social media had abounded in claims about pro-Palestinian marches being infiltrated by Hamas sympathisers. Hamas, from ‘Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah’ (HMS) meaning ‘Islamic Resistance Movement’ – is a violent, fundamentalist movement founded 1987, with roots in the post-colonial era of the early 20th century, when European powers had colonised much of the Middle East. This means the movement has been active for close to 4 decades, drawing on a deeply rooted anti-colonial ideology. It is thus worth remembering that whilst the present humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unprecedented, the impact of the decades long Israeli – Palestinian conflict is not new, and its ongoing trauma has global reverberations and connections to ethnic and religious identities.  

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The Green Man and the Blue Man

By David Robertson 

I lived in Leith when my kids were small, so I spent a lot of time pushing a pram around. I got to know the streets and paths well, and the many interesting buildings. Although more famous today for the poverty and addiction that plagued the area in the 1980s and 1990s, Leith was a hugely wealthy harbour for most of its long existence, and the evidence is written in the dark sandstone.

Figure 1 - The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

Figure 1 – The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

Something I quickly noticed was the many example of the “Green Man” around the place. Like many (including the King!), I’ve long been fascinated with the verdant, vigorous, vital trickster grinning down from the eaves. He seems to speak of a pagan past – even though in fact he was a Victorian invention that synthesised a number of different local figures and traditions into a single universal figure, in much the same way that today’s Wheel of the Year — the pagan calendar of equinoxes, solstices and “quarter days” — was created. He fitted the growth of interest in “folk customs” that accompanied urbanisation, and the fashion for ornate neo-gothic architecture, and so we should not be surprised that the wealthy merchants of Leith included him in their new buildings.

Figure 2 – Carved pair of heads, Constitution Street, Leith (photos by the author)

But then I noticed that in Leith, he often has a friend. I found several pairs of heads, matching except for their paraphernalia — where the Green Man seemed to be peering out from the greenery, leaves and vines and fruit in his hair, his friend had waves for a beard and shells in his hair.

Figure 3 – The Green Man, Junction Street, Leith (photo by the author)

I reached out to a local historian I know on Twitter, who told me that, in fact, most of the heads are meant to represent Bacchus (Greek god of wine), because alcohol was their primary import. This is very clear in the spectacular carving on the corner of Maritime Street, the former offices of “distillers, blenders and manufacturers of cordials”, Robertson, Sanderson & Company, which is replete with vines and bunches of grapes (as well as Scottish thistles).

Figure 4 – Bacchus head, Maritime Lane, Leith (photo by the author). Continue reading

Religious diversity in Jordan: “Docutubes” in Amman and As-Salt

John Maiden

From 2018 to 2022, along with Open University colleagues John Wolffe and Stefanie Sinclair, and scholars and stakeholders across Europe, I was part of the Horizon2020 project ‘Religious Toleration and Peace’ (RETOPEA). The purpose of the project was to explore historic examples of historic religious diversity and coexistence, and to engage young people with this research through a process of creative learning, called the ‘docutube’ methodology. These are short films, scripted, filmed and edited by young people (in schools, youth clubs etc.), which make connections between religious toleration and peace in historical contexts, the present day and their own experiences. So often, we found, European young people tended to assume that the ‘religious past’ was one of intolerance, antagonism, and violence. The point of RETOPEA was to raise awareness of historic ‘counternarratives’ of religious coexistence and peacebuilding.

In September 2023, along with Research Associate Dr Katelin Teller we took the ‘docutubes’ methodology outside of Europe, and to a Muslim majority context, for the first time. Our partner on the ground was the Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS) in Amman, an institution which promotes research and engagement in the area of religious diversity. The group of young people were aged 18-22 and each from a Muslim background. At the beginning of the workshop, we examined historic sources on religious coexistence in Jordan and the Middle East more widely. We looked at the significance of the figure of Saint George and Al-Khadar amongst Christians and Muslims, including examples of multi-religious space and popular religious practice in relation to this figure, for example as described by the Muslim geographer al-Muqaddasi (946-1000) in Lod. We looked at religious clothing in Jordan, for instance where local Catholic priests had dressed similarly to Bedouin. We examined too the Amman Message, a statement on diversity and unity in the Muslim world, which RIIFS had a major role in putting together.

Once young people had engaged with wider themes of religious coexistence, we visited the city of As-Salt. Here they were able to visit both Catholic and Orthodox churches, a marketplace used by both communities, and interview religious leaders in a city which has a long reputation for ‘everyday’ peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims. Here, the young people filmed their docutubes, drawing on their previous day’s thinking on historic sources and their observations of the material examples of religious diversity in the city.

The point of making docutubes is to enable deep, creative learning. Rather than give the young people historical ‘facts’, we seek to give them the chance to engage with historical sources and material environments. The insightful nature of the young peoples’ films, which will soon be made available (in Arabic, with English subtitles) at www.retopea.eu, indicates the potential of this approach.